A vision without purpose; the brand tragedy of Macbeth.
By the end, Macbeth’s clothes don’t fit—like the mission statement of a dying company.
To depict Macbeth as a caricature of a king, theater directors have Macbeth dress in ever increasingly unfit clothes, “a giant’s robe upon a dwarfish thief” (5.2.21-22). As a leader, not of inspiration but of authority, Macbeth swims disoriented in borrowed robes. A visual metaphor for a misguided person who makes decisions based on vision and not purpose. Companies of vision, without purpose, eventually wear brands ill fitted for who they are. A reflection they’re unable to see, an error they notice too late.
If you don’t know the story of Macbeth, I’m going to ruin it for you, so I offer you two options.
First, “The Quick.” Cover your eyes and flick your mouse down to the last paragraph. I’ll summarize a hard lesson about brand—analytical without giving the story away.
Your second choice: “The Sticky.” Bookmark this article, read, watch, or attend Macbeth, then skip past this line for…
…a Shakespearian lesson on taking action without reason. An open path we could all unintentionally take; from sensitive to unsympathetic, from ethical to immoral. This is the Brand Tragedy of Macbeth.
To be thus is nothing But to be safely thus.
(To become king is easy. To stay king that’s all that matters.)
As you may recall…
The first mention of Macbeth is of great reverence. “For brave Macbeth—well he deserves that name” (1.2.16). He is the mighty protector of King Duncan’s crown, he fights back the King of Norway, carving enemies from the belly to jaw. Lady Macbeth describes him as having a natural instinct for good, “full of the milk of human kindness” (1.4.13). So what fate turns this celebrated guardian into a murderously ambitious king?
It’s difficult to argue that some blame doesn’t rest on the crooked shoulders of the three witches. Often referred to as “weird sisters” (“wyrd,” is an Old English word for “fate“), these three greet a fascinated Macbeth with a prediction of nobility and royal ascension. They hail him as the Thane of Glamis, a true statement. They hail him as the Thane of Cawdor; this is also true, but Macbeth doesn’t know it yet. They hail him as the “king hereafter.” Macbeth, skeptical, doesn’t consider this “within the prospect of belief.”
Curious, and possibly disbelieving, Macbeth’s counterpart Banquo asks about his own fate. The three sisters tell Banquo his children will be kings, and that he will not. Does Banquo spend a lot of time thinking about this? Does he call it nonsense? Neither. He seems intrigued, but not enough to follow up with action. For Macbeth though, the notion hangs. Still interested, he reaches for them, “Stay, you imperfect speakers, tell me more” (1.3.65).
As a leader, you’re introduced daily to new possibilities, little ideas and notions. Some have lucrative potential, many have no more worth than the air they float on. Like Macbeth, even unbelievable ideas are entertained to some degree. Your mind is a participant and spectator as these visions unfold. Is this a deal we should consider? Will this benefit my company, my employees, myself? If the end benefit is tantalizing enough, would you think it’s worth some consideration?
Macbeth is a committed Thane to King Duncan. He disregards his own life in a battle that benefits and protects the king. This is significant proof of his devotion, so what leads him so far from his present reality? Before the murder of Duncan, it seems Macbeth is a man who completes a task because he’s told—a cloud pushed by the wind it serves. He doesn’t share with us a vision for what he wants out of life; though by the number of mentions, Shakespeare makes it noticeably apparent that Macbeth is barren and has no future with children. His plea for the sisters to stay speaks to how desperate he is for an answer. Desperation we all share looking for the answer to what is my calling? What is my purpose?
To get what you want out of life, you’re taught to have a vision. To describe it, to articulate it, and make it real. Our mentors tell us to passionately own it, relentlessly drive it to completion, manufacture your destiny, if you must. Fake it ‘til you make it. Vision and goal-setting works. No need to dig deeper. There are enough scientific studies, self-help books, and anecdotes to prove that setting a goal, creating a vision for what you want, in the short term or long term will help you achieve it. In branding, vision is the tool that guides the direction of an organization. Point, look, that’s where we’re headed. When King Duncan follows his vision and appoints his eldest son Malcolm as the Prince of Cumberland, Malcolm becomes the heir apparent. At that time in Scotland, the oldest born was not assumed the automatic successor. With this declaration, Macbeth starts to pull together the building blocks for his own vision. “Stars, hide your fires; Let not light see my black and deep desires” (1.4.50-51).
By letter, Macbeth shares the weird sisters’ curious foretelling with Lady Macbeth. His partner now has the vision too. She visualizes the crown in her future without introspection, “fate and metaphysic aid doth seem to have thee crowned withal” (1.5.25-26). Seemingly obsessed, she doesn’t state or indicate the reason for this compulsion. Shakespeare uses antiquated metaphors to suggest it’s a replacement for a “maternal instinct.” That her husband is a substitute for a child. And without this maternal purpose, she fixates on a vision of grandeur, to be the queen, receiver of lucrative benefits, and a true partner to her king. As she attaches herself to the thoughts of these comforts, like a good business partner, she plans the execution; focused on the dream, damn the consequences. “Chastise with the valor of my tongue all that impedes thee from the golden round” (1.5.23-24).
Partners, colleagues, and employees work for you out of a primary need to be paid. It’s coarse to the ear, like being told your dog is your companion because you feed it. Still, it’s symbiotic and an accepted minimum in partnership: pay partners, pay colleagues, pay employees, feed your dog. The amount paid is seen as a reflection of a person’s value, it makes negotiations stifled and challenging conversation. Some organizations abuse this symbiotic partnership while others lean into it and share the wealth. Praise and value through cash. If you offer to share your wealth and opportunity, as Macbeth has with his wife, your wealth and opportunity become theirs. No renege without consequence—bite the hand that stops feeding. The shared vision of your future is just as much theirs now. You’re partners in crime, so to speak. The vision gives everyone involved a hope for their personal future, a sense of where they’re heading, an opportunity to devise and support a mission.
Lady Macbeth has her mission: “you shall put this night’s great business into my dispatch” (1.5.63-64). Macbeth in contrast has his doubts: “We will proceed no further in this business” (1.7.32). By definition, tasks assigned and carried out to support the vision become the organization’s mission. Vocalized or not, the mission is the agreement on what it takes to reach the vision. Macbeth’s letter to Lady Macbeth spoke about a fate that was to come to her, his “dearest partner” and a promise of a life beyond what they thought possible, “greatness is promised thee” (1.5.10). With some validity, she asked if he was drunk when he talked about being a king. The unintended promise he made ensures his vision has a life of its own. Vision has momentum and though Lady Macbeth supplies some form of convincing, the potent persuasion comes from the vision’s thrust. “Is this a dagger which I see before me, the handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee” (2.1.33-34). Led by his dream, the vision to be king, the mission is carried out. As Macbeth plunges daggers into Duncan, his destiny and those of his partner dawns.
It’s a fallacy to believe each person agrees on how to execute a company mission. In the book, “The Theory of Moral Sentiments,” the father of economics, Adam Smith, discusses how political leaders believe their system can be imposed to fix society “with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board.” Leaders in politics or business seem to conveniently disregard the idea of a person’s “principle of motion,” i.e., self-will. “In the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own.” Adam Smith knows you can’t control, nor expect, people to move the way you want or anticipate without incentive to do so. Be it for personal advantages, like Lady Macbeth, or for a reason above and beyond themselves—they need a reason. They need a purpose.
The same way Macbeth is corrupted by his interpretation of fate, a business without a purpose can be misled by their vision. If vision is the motivation, the motor, the desire to propel an organization to an end result, then purpose controls its direction. The purpose—the reason for being beyond commerce—smoothly steers business through course change and avoids obstacles that impede growth. It’s the route of the reliable and true. Together, a vision propels the organization and the purpose steers; the “how it’s done” is controlled by the mission. Conversely—and here lies the ignorance of Macbeth—if you allow your vision to steer your direction as Macbeth has, it’s akin to steering a car with the rear wheels instead of the front. With little effort, your direction—and how it’s perceived by others, i.e. your brand—become erratic, unreliable, or possibly dangerously unethical. And as the intensity of business rises, the sharp steering puts yourself, the business and everyone who works for it, in danger of it tumbling off course. Watch Macbeth tumble. His choices become increasingly poor, speeding to his end.
Where there was once sensitivity to people’s thoughts and feelings, Macbeth grows numb. His original struggle with the morality of murder turns to a compulsion to keep his vision intact. Without prejudice, he eliminates those in his way, a massacre of the innocents: his king, guards, Banquo, MacDuff’s wife, children, and servants. Hints of guilt come in the form of Banquo’s ghost, but guilt flips to anger and resignation: “It will have blood, they say: blood will have blood” (3.4.120). Business is business.
Companies are made up from—and this is quite a revelation—people. And even if paid well, there seems to be a maximum amount of callousness and unpredictability a person can take from a company and its leadership. Lady Macbeth can’t wash her hands enough by the final act. When the vision of an organization breaks from the (often assumed) values of the company, a tear becomes a chasm. The open canyon places partners and employees farther away from the company vision. It pulls away from the people within the company and leaves them with an unarticulated feeling of discomfort, guilt and a need to wash their hands of it. Macbeth’s advocate and partner, Lady Macbeth, leaves taking her own life,“By self and violent hands” (5.11.36-37). And as loyalty wanes, good people eventually leave too. Sometimes they take employment elsewhere compelled by their own vision—your destruction,“Behold where stands (Macbeth’s head impaled on top of a pike, which MacDuff strikes into the ground) Th’usurper’s cursèd head. The time is free” (MACDUFF 5.11.20-21).
Where he was once horrified by his own actions—“Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood clean from my hand?“(2.2.57-58)—we find him barely moved by the death of his wife. By the end, Macbeth is not who he once was, he is hard to follow as he moves abruptly in a vastly different direction. He fills out the robe of a king no more than a company without purpose can be an exalted leader of industry.
It’s true, an organization can conduct business without purpose. This happens every day. This reflection is on what decisions without purpose do to an organization over a long period. It changes the face and form of an inspiring vision to a driven force focused on outcome regardless of means. “Fair is foul, and foul is fair” (1.1.9), it’s a slow sickness that can’t be felt day to day.
The tragedy of Macbeth here is a parallel of three. The exaggerated imagery of clothing that goes from fit to unfit. Macbeth’s chase after an ambiguous fate turns him from true and respected, to immoral and hated. And an organization’s fixation on vision without consideration of purpose makes for a brand born of focus but inevitably destined, through its unpredictable actions, to destroy loyalty. It’s harder to follow a king than a leader. It’s hard to be loyal to a business that’s only in it for the money and not the purpose. Still, perception is brand. If you want loyalty from partners, colleagues, employees, and customers, you need to go beyond the vision—a want to be king—and be the leader with a purpose. As all good leaders have one that fits.
There are two books I leaned on to write this and if you found interest in either branding or Shakespeare, I suggest you check both out. Marty Neumeier’s Brand Gap How to Bridge the Distance Between Business Strategy & Design and Marjorie Garber’s Shakespeare After All.
• Title: Macbeth, Medium: Hand-colored etching, Dimensions: Sheet: 8 1/2 x 6 1/2in. (21.6 x 16.5cm), Credit Line: Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund Macbeth – YCBA Collections Search (yale.edu
• John Raphael Smith | The Weird Sisters (Shakespeare, MacBeth, Act 1, Scene 3) | The Metropolitan Museum of Art (metmuseum.org)
• Creator: Robert Thew, 1758–1802, British after Sir Joshua Reynolds RA, 1723–1792, British Title: Shakespeare, Macbeth Act IV, Scene I Part Of: Collective Title: Iconographie Anglaise par Reynolds et Autres https://collections.britishart.yale.edu/catalog/tms:26418
• William Gladstone as Macbeth is fighting with a younger man as Macduff. Colour lithograph by Tom Merry, 14 August 1886. | Wellcome Collection
• Macbeth: “There’s blood upon Thy face”, Act III, Scene iv, Macbeth | Yale University Art Gallery
Everything is in a state of assembly.
Good things take time and effort. Here are a few of the notable iterations of the piece you read.